Preparing veterans to succeed in higher ed

Diane Sandefur entered the world of higher education as a nontraditional student. For the past 17 years at Penn, she has helped hundreds of fellow nontraditional students—veterans, in particular —receive their own acceptance letters from higher education institutions.

“My role is to fill in the gaps and help veterans move forward with their dreams and goals,” Sandefur says.

Sandefur is the director of Penn’s Veterans Upward Bound (VUB), one of several U.S. Department of Education-funded TRIO programs that aim to expand access to education among underrepresented populations. The program’s primary goal, Sandefur says, is to prepare eligible veterans not only to enter college, but to succeed in higher education and graduate.

“We all need our moments of realizing we have potential we never knew we had,” Sandefur says. “These veterans know that Veterans Upward Bound is going to help them and guide them to meet their fullest potential—whatever that is for them. What they do going forward is their decision, but VUB is there to let them know that they have it within them to succeed.”

Now in its 35th year at Penn, VUB serves more than 150 veterans annually, hailing from Philadelphia and its five surrounding counties: Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Camden County, N.J.

“When the veterans come in, we give them intensive pre-college classes and all of the academic support, academic counseling, and resource-sharing they may need to make them a successful student,” Sandefur says, adding that the structure of VUB is designed to emulate university life to give students a trial run of the experience. “We want them to learn to be successful not only here at Veterans Upward Bound, but wherever they choose to go at the end of our program.”

VUB accepts veterans who qualify as low-income or first-generation students, meaning neither parent could have attended college. Two-thirds of accepted VUB students must qualify under both circumstances, a number Sandefur says the program easily meets.

All VUB students must have received a military discharge other than dishonorable. For pre-9/11 vets, they must have served more than 181 days of active duty or received a medical discharge.

Once accepted, the students are required to take the ACT Compass Assessment—the same used in many community colleges—to help program directors identify their reading, writing, and math skills. From there, the students are placed into 100-level courses, 200-level courses, or a combination of the two.

As required by TRIO, VUB offers grammar, literature, math and pre-calculus, a foreign language, and a laboratory science. In addition, VUB has two levels of computer courses. All courses are taught by non-Penn faculty in University facilities.

“We tailor the curriculum to their skill sets,” Sandefur says. “Some of our students have never turned a computer on, or they don’t know how to type or have email. So for some, that’s where we start our teaching.”

VUB is held three semesters per year, and students can complete the program in as little as one semester or take as much time as they need—“as long as they’re committed to staying and really  trying,” Sandefur says.

Sandefur, who was recently honored by the “Be a Hero, Hire a Hero” organization, says she has seen plenty of students continually try until they succeed. She says it’s extremely gratifying to watch the students she works with apply and get accepted to organizations around the region, but adds that it’s just as rewarding to see a student suddenly grasp their potential.

“Diane’s dedication and skill at providing the veterans with the foundation each needs to advance her or his academic aspirations is extraordinary,” says William Gipson, associate vice president for Penn’s Office of Equity and Access Programs, which houses VUB. “VUB enhances Penn’s commitment to inclusion and access. As a central principle of the University under Dr. Amy Gutmann’s leadership, VUB is a fine example of these ideas in action.”

Sandefur agrees. She says that helping veterans realize their potential is very much in line with Penn’s mission—and with that of the country as a whole.

“Penn has made a huge commitment to the community at large, and [the University] truly believes in access to education,” Sandefur says. “But giving veterans access to higher ed is helping even  beyond the community because, once these students succeed, you never know where they are going to go.”